Last week I began a new feature on Progressive Redneck Preacher called “A Week in the Word”. As it got a positive response, we’re continuing it this week.
On my personal facebook page I write down my gut reactions to Bible verses as many times a week as I am able. I started doing so a few years ago just as a way to keep me faithful in reading and wrestling with Scripture. Right now I use Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer‘s list of readings for each day to guide my reading of the Bible.
Since I started posting my thoughts on what I’m reading in the Bible, I found on those rare days I either skip a day of reading or don’t write down my thoughts for the day, quite to my surprise, there are always several people who message me and say “Where’s the Scripture thought for the day, Micah? It really helped me last week”.
What I am doing in this feature is sharing some of the highlights of these reflections. I invite you to not just read my reflections, but take time this week to dig into the Bible verses I reference, allowing them to speak to you personally. In last week’s post I shared with you the translations I find helpful in my own Bible meditation time, but suggested for you to find translations for yourself that are both easy to understand and yet challenge you even if they are different than what I use. I also introduced you to two ways to open yourself up to these verses — the Christian meditation practices of lectio divina and Ignation meditation.
Since I mention them in our reflections, I want to introduce you to a few others. One is breath prayer. Breath prayer involves finding a verse or line in a Scripture, and meditating on it an extended time, in sync with your breath. For anyone familiar with zazen practice in Zen Buddhism, this practice is very similar but rooted instead in the prayer practices of monks, nuns, and people of prayer in the places like the ancient African deserts in the early rise of Christianity to places like Alexandria, Egypt, and Carthage in Northwest in Africa. This is one of the powerful mindfulness practices of the early church.
This week I tried this practice out on a few verses, as a way of weaving ancient Christian contemplative practices into my own mindfulness practice. Some of my reflections are a response to my use of breath prayer.
If you are interested in developing a breath prayer practice, here are some websites that give great information about how to begin, perhaps with some of the same verses I describe in my reflections:
Another thing that I try to do this week is be very honest. There are texts where I have a hard time really seeing what message God would have me glean from them. There are others that seem to challenge what I’ve always heard about the Bible. There are some I have trouble accepting whose words I push back against. I try not to hide this in my reflections, because I think honest is an important part of the spiritual practice of both prayer and meditation on the Scriptures.
In fact, once could say that developing this honest is itself an important spiritual practice, as important as the forms of Scripture meditation I’ve mentioned so far. The Bible is a powerful place God speaks, and it is also delivered to us through the broken and frail words of women and men no different than us. Because of this, sometimes we have to recognize the authors are like Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 who admits some of what he writes is “the word of the Lord” and some is his own opinion. To hear from God in its pages, sometimes we must wrestle with the question of which voice we are hearing — God’s, or the authors’? God’s word to us is ever true, unshaking, and without fail. Their words? Sometimes, like us, they are full of vengeance, lust, impatience, ignorance, and narrow-minded perspectives. By wrestling with the texts in honesty we are better able to discern what is God’s word for us personally in the text, and not just some human word with all its frailty.
At times it is even healthy to wrestle with God. In Job, we see this is what Job does and it is Job, not his friends who try and stand to defend God, whom God declares as righteous. The reason? Job wrestles with God because he wants to honestly share his pain with God, and in his pain experience the real and living presence of God. Wrestling in your pain, heartache, and confusion with God can be a powerful way of acknowleding that God continues to be real and living, able to reach down into your life and still speak new things.
Like Jacob, when you do this, at times you may leave the brook where you meet God still limping, but you will leave blessed.
Here’s hoping these reflections help you both in your resting in God’s presence and in your wrestling with the God of angel-armies, so you leave blessed.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Reflections on the Psalms
Psalm 69 describes the overwhelming helplessness felt by those in desperate situations. I’ve felt that, & so many feel it so often. It feels like sinking in the sea, with no help of rescue. This Psalm reminds me in those moments none of us are alone or without aid. God is waiting to lift us up, waiting to carry us. And we too can help others sense they are not alone in these moments.
Psalm 74 invites us to face those parts of our life experience that feel like utter ruin. It calls us to face our heartache and feelings of abandonment and to own those feelings to God and before others. We struggle with this, having well meaning believers, family, & friends tell us to smile, keep a stiff upper lip, & to thank God in all circumstances. Yet this can lead to pretending we’re ok when we’re not. Remember even Jesus cried out ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ showing us the way forward is not burying pain but facing it. Our capacity to bury pain is like a sewage system. You can push that mess down all you want but unless you face it to clean it out some, eventually it will overload and you’ll have crap everywhere.
Psalm 77 is a balm and encouragement today reminding me that God works wonders of deliverance not by avoiding obstacles like the reed sea but by bringing people through them. It causes me to pause and think, What places of oppression has God taken me out of? Also it reminds me when I see obstacles ahead, this might be the path of my deliverance. God can bring me through it too!
Psalm 82 depicts God sitting court in judgment of the idols of the nations, whose worship produces a crushing of the poor and outcast. Read literally it is hard to apply. We don’t have a literal idol industry anymore. Figuratively, boy howdy! Unbridled capitalism is a god our nation worships, keeping as few benefits of our economy from helping reach the “least of these” and justifying polluting our waters and wrecking our earth in ways that will make so many sick. We too often worship unbridled nationalism that justifies unjust wars, fear of immigrants, and at times an unwillingness to acknowledge our own faults. And let’s not forget how we turn God into a product to be sold, packaged in terms that will sell to the highest bidder even when it overlooks and ignores a lot of who God is in ways that hurt people. What dangerous idols do folks wrestle with in your community? How can you name them, and help turn folks’ eyes to the living liberating God?
At times everything may feel out of control, uncertain, your legs shaking with what may come next. Psalm 89 reminds me of this certainty: God’s love for you is unswerving, unending, more solid than the firm earth below you because even that can be shaken by quakes or drowned in rain. God’s love for you can never be shaken. Even at your worst moments the Father, Son, & mothering Holy Spirit continue to look at you with eyes of love
Psalm 93 invites us to experience God’s constancy as the foundation upon which the world stays stable and sound. I want to embrace that this morning but cannot shake images in my mind of people whose lives are unraveling and folks in situations without any seeming stability. How do you reconcile these two images in your own life?
Psalm 118’s ‘This the day The Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice’ has always sounded a bit Polyanna and unrealistic to me. Using it as the phrase for breath prayer this week as my mindfulness practice led me to experience it in a new way: not as a denial of struggle but as a call to be fully present with and embrace this moment.
Reflections from the Hebrew Scriptures
Judges 11:1-11 tells us how Jephthah, the son of a whore who is in a group of bandits (professional criminals) ends up being the one God calls to liberate Israel. It goes to show: we should not rule someone out, saying that God could never use the likes of them. God has a call for every person they can opt in or out of. As people of faith we should not tell people ‘God can’t use you’ but instead help them realize their potential, begin to tap into it. ‘I believe in you’ may be the best Gospel message we ever preach to someone.
I honestly got nothing out of my reading from Judges 12 this week. This reminds me that spiritual practices are about showing up, being ready, & open. Its like trips to the lake. Sometimes you fish for hours without a bite but even then you still leave feeling refreshed.
Judges 13 picks up a biblical theme that means a lot to me: disability can be a gift. Manoah and his wife cannot bear a child, which was viewed in the ancient world as a disability and often thought of as a sign of being on bad terms with God. Yet here, as elsewhere in the Scriptures, this is shown by God not to be because someone does not have God’s favor but because the disability opens them to become ones through whom God’s blessing of creation can pour through for others like might ocean waves at high tide. Their child like other children borne of the disability of barrenness is able to become a carrier of God’s covenant, a sign and emblem of God’s promises, love, & faithfulness, in a unique way. This is personal to me, because if I become a father it will, like for Manoah and his wife, be through extraordinary means like adoption. This verse reminds me that need not be viewed as somehow a consolation prize. No it is an opportunity for God’s love and grace to be carried in a visible way too. Also I think people who have other disabilities and those they love may struggle with similar feelings of fruitlessness and questions of ‘Does this mean I’m forgotten by God?’ This story reminds us the opposite is true. This is opportunity for creativity and cooperation with God to be a co-creator with Spirit so that like Mr and Mrs Manoah you become an emblem for God’s live and faithfulness in how you create, serve, & give new life in ways those not in your situation could never have dreamed up doing.
In Judges 14 Samson very quickly breaks multiple parts of the Biblical law of his day. Nor does he exercise common human decency. Yet the Holy Spirit comes on him, turning him again and again into a force for liberating captives. This shows it is not about our perfection, nor our keeping a list of rules. It’s about our God who never gives up on us and, in our own faltering way, our responding to that relentless relationship.
So in reading Judges 15:1-20 I’m trying to get some inspiring meaning out of it. The stuff Samson does here is so barbaric. To me its a reminder that spiritual practice is like fishing — it’s about being available. You don’t always catch something but the act of waiting and watching itself is life giving. And when you do catch something … You are all pumping your arm saying “Alright!” and high-fiving people. Though I can think of one positive lesson now that I have quit trying to think of one: God’s reaction’s not like mine. God doesn’t get so disgusted at folks barbaric actions he wants to look a way. God still sees good in Samson & everyone. God is able to meet people where they are, no matter how seemingly broken, with love.
What strikes me as I read Judges 16:1-14 is that all this talk I heard growing up in the church about ‘sexual purity’ doesn’t seem to be as prized in the Bible itself. Here Samson is with all kinds of women, including a prostitute. Samson may not be the best role model, of course. But look at David and all his romantic dalliances. The only time he’s condemned for any of his romantic flings is when he murders to cover it up. Look at Rahab the harlot, held up as a saint in Scripture for trusting God. There’s no evidence I can see this saint ever quit her job as a prostitute. Look at Tamar who while working as a prostitute is declared more righteous than the patriarch who was the head of her tribe. And even in the book of Ruth it is pretty clear in the original Hebrew that when she visits Boaz at night it ain’t to play cards … even though they aren’t married yet. I’m not saying faithfulness to your spouse or partner isn’t important, nor that we should be thoughtless in romance or sex. But examples in Scripture like this reading and the others I’ve mentioned make me think the way we elevate people’s romantic or sexual choices as if they determine wheter someone is a good or bad person, close or far from God, just doesn’t seem to be how the Bible does so. The Bible seems to recognize we are sexual beings and there are a wide range of romantic choices women and men who love God make. Perhaps as believers we need to be less judgmental and invasive of people’s bedrooms and more focused on what the Bible makes clear — doing justice. Loving mercy. Walking humbly with our God. And making space for others to do the same, even when the way they do so ain’t how we would.
Readings from New Testament
Luke 4. I did breath prayer, an ancient Christian meditation practice as my mindfulness practice using God’s words over Jesus at his baptism as my centering verse. It struck me during the practice that a lot of my anxiety in my job transition comes from deep down feeling I am not enough and have to ‘prove’ myself to someone. I felt a challenge during this time of breath prayer to accept myself as one God and others can be pleased in for who I am, whatever I am or am not doing and the call to let what I do in this transition flow out of the fullness of who I am not fear of who I am not.
Acts 20:1-16 is an encouraging story for me as a preacher. I’ve worried before about when I’m not at my best when I preached or if I’ve harmed people when I preached things I now know to be wrong. I’m sure, like all preachers, I have those I unwittingly confused or even hurt when I was off or misunderstood what God was saying. This verse gives me hope. God’s power and goodness can redeem even the most disastrous preaching mistakes. Paul’s decision to preach all through the night was a classic preacher mistake: thinking saying more is more inspiring. In reality it usually puts people to sleep though rarely ends this tragically, with someone falling to their death. Thank God that the Holy Spirit redeems Paul’s preaching folly by healing the young man turning test into testimony! And then everybody finds God beyond words in the bread of communion. This gives me hope that God can heal my mistakes as a preacher. And reminds me that other acts of worship like communion, singing, prayer, fellowship can be the better vessels sometimes for God to speak than my preaching.
Having been raised in a time and place I was confronted by the fallout of pastors fleecing their flocks, Acts 20:17ff is a good contrast to what I saw. Paul shows what real Christian leadership is: not seeking wealth or power, turning down favors, being willing to make less financially to be of help to those who truly need him, not building up his image but rather the people he’s serving’s lives, & building a vision bigger than himself so the community ultimately is strong enough it does not need him someday.
Acts 21:15-36 is a reminder that you can do your best, try to find a middle ground and seek peace or reconciliation with someone and have them refuse, even have it end disastrously. Paul goes to enormous distances and means to seek peace and reconciliation with those who disagree with his ministry of inclusion. They reject him. It ends in conflict and prison. This reminds me since there are those who despite my best efforts at bringing peace continue to reject me, that ultimately reconciliation is a two way street. If you’ve done all you can do, you are not responsible for whether someone embraces you back or not. A part of growing to spiritual maturity is realizing choosing openness, choosing the good loving path, is not because its easy. It may all end badly. It’s because its right, its holy, & at the end of the day its purifying for your own heart to reject hatred for mercy & love.
What strikes me as I read Acts 22:1-16 is, when given a chance to share the Gospel while in chains, Paul doesn’t tramp out with a list of ‘absolute truths’. Those things don’t exist. Or if they do, they exist in the mind of God and we can’t know them for sure this side of glory. No, he shares what he can know — his story, his experience of God at work in his life, transforming him. That we know. That is what we have to offer — all we can give so far as words are concerned. But how powerful! No one can argue with your story. And when you tell a story that’s true whoever truly listens has to find themselves within that story. This is why Jesus told parables, symbolic stories of everyday life. What is your story? Share it with confidence and grace.